Waiting for that game of Internet Monopoly to end? Not only is it not over yet, it's accelerating -- as an ever-wider group of giant telephone companies, hungry cable providers, wary media corporations and feisty online newcomers all push their pieces around the board in increasingly baroque deals fueled by the play money of inflated Net stocks.
That's the first message in Tuesday's news that @Home, the provider of high-speed Internet access via cable, will buy Excite, the portal site that has long played Avis to Yahoo's Hertz. Coming on the heels of last November's purchase of Netscape by America Online, the Excite deal shows just how fluid and wacky this business remains. Though the stock deal is valued at $6.7 billion, neither company has ever shown a profit. But in today's climate, just bringing up that fact makes one sound like an incorrigible Luddite.
Excite began its life as an also-ran search engine called Architext that became a second-rank search site by swallowing Webcrawler and Magellan, and rose to its No. 2 position in the competitive portal business through smart marketing and aggressive aggregation of services. @Home placed a very early bet on the rise of high-speed, "broadband" access to the Internet via cable modem, and though its growth has been slow (the company now boasts 330,000 customers), it's generally viewed as the pioneer and leader in its business.
So how do these companies complement each other -- aside from sharing the same street in Redwood City, Calif., making the merger that much simpler? As the official press release puts it, in verbiage that was parrotted in much of the news coverage of the story, "The companies aim to accelerate broadband adoption by exposing the millions of Excite narrowband users to the benefits of a media experience enhanced by the broadband platform."
Huh? Did they really say that? "Exposing" Excite's millions of users to @Home's broadband "media experience" would be a nice trick; unfortunately, it's beyond either company's technological capabilities. No matter how loyal an Excite user you may be, you can't be "exposed" to @Home's broadband service unless you receive it -- that is, unless your local cable company offers cable modem service through @Home, and you sign up and install it and junk your old 28.8K or 56K modem.
Maybe what @Home and Excite mean by "exposure" is what the rest of us call "marketing" -- that is, Excite's users won't actually be able to sample @Home's high-speed service, but they may well be bombarded with advertising for it. Still, the bottleneck preventing more people from picking broadband isn't a lack of "exposure" to the service; it's that cable companies have to upgrade their networks to offer broadband in the first place, and that takes a ton of money and a good deal of time.
The bigger change that the @Home-Excite merger portends is the
continuing collapse of the distinction between Internet service providers
and Web content providers. In the old days, the Net business had three
tiers: Service providers (ISPs) made sure that your computer could connect
with the Internet (the online equivalent of a dial tone); search engines
(later, portals) provided basic generic information and guides to the rest
of the online world; and content providers put up Web sites as destinations
for people to access via their ISPs and portals.
This model makes a lot of sense, and in the early days of the Web it was
the medium's secret weapon in its struggle to supplant the proprietary
online services like CompuServe, Prodigy and America Online. Content
providers flocked to the Web because it was an open commons, and that
attracted users, and the proprietary services became backwaters. But AOL
turned the game around with its transformation into what it now proudly
calls itself in its advertising -- "the world's leading Internet service
provider." AOL has found huge success by combining its role as an
easy-to-use service provider with its traditional business of aggregating
content from lots of sources.
The search-engines-turned-portals, like Yahoo and Excite, have always
had to persuade people to adopt them as the default start page for their
browsing. AOL has an advantage because it bundles its ISP service with its
elaborate proprietary content areas. You could use AOL as a simple
gateway to the rest of the Web (though its service tends to be sluggish),
but most AOL users don't. To its own advantage, AOL has successfully
blurred the line between AOL pages and Web pages, and between the ISP
business and the media business.
Excite and @Home must be planning to adopt this AOL strategy on the new
terrain of broadband: They want to be an all-in-one service provider, Net
portal and content provider. That's precisely why it's America Online
that's fighting @Home and its biggest shareholder, cable giant TCI, to get
the company to open up its broadband services to alternative providers --
in other words, AOL wants you to be able to sign up for cable modem service
via TCI-@Home but use AOL as your "portal" and content provider. And you
can bet AOL understands that the Excite-@Home deal creates a major
potential rival to its dominance of the consumer Internet industry.
What finally turns this story into the corporate equivalent of an M.C.
Escher print is the pending merger of TCI with AT&T -- which will put the
largest provider of cable modem service in the hands of a telephone giant.
AT&T has a large ISP service of its own that is struggling to grow against
AOL; if it winds up owning Excite (via TCI's share of @Home), it can help
turn Excite into the default home page for its millions of subscribers.
Telephone companies like AT&T have a tradition of doing business as "common
carriers": The companies that provide the connection are distinct
from the companies that make use of the lines. Cable companies have no such
tradition. As the mergers continue, which model will Internet service --
the basic provision of an Internet-protocol-based connection to the global
network -- adopt?
In a sense, of course, all Internet service is common carrier;
if you have access to the Net, you can go anywhere on the Net you wish. But
the rise of new integrated portal/ISP companies like AOL has complicated
the picture: This struggle isn't about where you can go, but about
where masses of consumers are going to be herded. AOL, hungry for access
to cable customers, argues that it has a common-carrier-style right to
deliver service over the cable industry's wires. But @Home-Excite can argue
that its game of intertwining service and content is one that AOL itself
Meanwhile, even as this deal seems to be setting up a titanic conflict target="new" href="http://www.kpcb.com">Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers,
between AOL-Netscape and AT&T-TCI-@Home-Excite, there's a different lineup
forming one level higher on this vast 3-D chessboard. @Home and Excite are both
companies that were funded by, and grew up under the umbrella of,
happens, Kleiner Perkins and its high-profile partner John Doerr are also
credited with putting together the AOL-Netscape merger (as San Jose Mercury
News columnist Chris Nolan pointed out in breaking the story
on the @Home-Excite deal on Sunday).
target="new" href="http://www.kpcb.com">Kleiner Perkins Caufield &
Byers,Silicon Valley's ubiquitous venture-capital firm. As it
In ringleading such disparate and apparently conflicting deals, what
could Kleiner Perkins possibly be up to? Think of it as part of an "Anyone
but Microsoft" plan: Whoever wins and loses in the evolving @Home-AOL
battle, Microsoft isn't even in the game. In the Internet service and
content areas, Bill Gates' crew has only a string of failures and
near-misses to show -- from the many incarnations of the Microsoft Network
to the acquisition of WebTV, which has never taken off with the public.
Whether it's because they're distracted by the antitrust trial or just
not very adept at the media and telecommunications businesses, Microsoft's
leaders have yet to make good on their enemies' paranoia. So far, the
future of Net access doesn't look like a world Microsoft will or can
dominate. But Microsoft is an insanely rich company that doesn't take
losing well. While the poo-bahs of Silicon Valley celebrate their
deal-making prowess this week -- which nearly doubled the market value of
Excite -- they would be plain dumb to write off the software